I Guess Being A Thug Is Better Than Being A Child Molester

Robert Alistair McAlpine, Baron McAlpine of West Green, is not a child molester.

When BBC2's Newsnight reported on a child abuse scandal, it incorrectly stated that a "a prominent Thatcher-era Tory figure" had engaged in child abuse. This report, premised on mistaken identity, was widely understood to refer to Lord McAlpine, and intended to refer to him.

It is hard to imagine a more damaging false accusation than one of child abuse. The BBC has apologized and paid Lord McAlpine; if (as the stories linked above suggest) it was reckless in its reporting, that's a just result.

But Lord McAlpine is not satisfied with pursuing the networks that made the false report. He's also pursuing citizens who commented on the news report.

Mr. McAlpine did not stop with the mainstream media. On Friday, a spokeswoman for the politician told The Guardian newspaper that his lawyers had identified 20 “high-profile tweeters” from whom they were seeking libel damages. Among them were a comedian, Alan Davies; Sally Bercow, the wife of John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons; and George Monbiot, a Guardian columnist.

. . .

In addition to the prominent figures, Mr. McAlpine is reportedly pursuing action against thousands of other Twitter users, including people who had merely repeated to their own followers comments made by others.

Apparently Lord McAlpine is contemplating pursuing speech that only by implication repeated any defamatory statements by the media:

On 4 November Bercow tweeted to her 56,000 followers: "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*".

She followed this up with the tweet: "Final on McAlpine: am VERY sorry for inadvertently fanning flames. But I tweet as me, forgetting that to some of u I am Mrs bloody Speaker." She has since deleted her Twitter account.

At the time the Newsnight allegations were being widely discussed on Twitter Monbiot tweeted: "I looked up Lord McAlpine on t'internet. It says the strangest things." Monbiot later apologised on his blog.

Lord McAlpine's attorneys at RMPI have set up a sort of mass-production system to address potential defendants, encouraging them to come forward, apologize, pay money to charity, and pay “a small administrative charge to cover the costs of dealing with this matter”. RMPI has issued a letter — helpfully available on its web site — which kindly assures us that it is not their intention to "create any hardship," but attaching a form confession and apology for Twitter users to fill out. They are careful to explain that this method is only "confirmed" for Twitter users with fewer than 500 followers, which Lord McAlpine apparently views as a demarcation of Twitter prominence. (By that measure, Popehat is prominent by an order of magnitude, though vastly less prominent than, say, @DrunkHulk.) "Prominent" Twitter users may be subjected to special treatment.

Lord McAlpine is also apparently seeking criminal charges against some Twitter users:

"We have met with senior officers from Scotland Yard," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One programme. "There are a hard core of people retweeting, acting maliciously, which is illegal. And no doubt in due course the police will investigate that or not, that is up to them, not us."

In some nations that would be a self-evidently vain attempt. In England, it is manifestly not.

No doubt many Twitter users will be intimidated into completing Lord McAlpine's and RMPI's self-criticism forms. England's stupendously awful libel laws give Twitter users every reason to fear that Lord McAlpine can pursue them and ruin them, whatever the justice of the matter.

And the matter is unjust. Lord McAlpine was wronged by the BBC's incompetent (and perhaps even deliberately malicious) reporting. But in pursuing Twitter users who merely linked or commented upon news reported by the BBC, Lord McAlpine is acting like a thug, and RMPI like his lowlife bully-boys. What Lord McAlpine is pursuing here — aided by a broken libel law — is the dream of every entitled and narcissistic public figure: a world in which citizens cannot safely repeat, or comment upon, unflattering reports about them in the media. That's a goal well beyond what the regrettably compliant legal system has already given them.

Lord McAlpine and RMPI know that Twitter users cannot possibly conduct research themselves on the facts underlying stories in the newspapers or on the networks. By purporting to impose a duty of independent verification of such stories, they hope that you, and I, and everyone else who sees a story about someone like him will be chilled and deterred from linking it on Twitter, or retweeting a comment about it, or even making a vague and sly reference to it. They hope to establish a system in which the risks of comment on any negative story on any public figure are so daunting that people like Lord McAlpine are effectively protected from insult or rebuke, like the luminaries of some pre-modern kingdom or authoritarian hell-hole.

Lord McAlpine is not a child molester. It was reckless of the BBC to report, by implication, otherwise. But Lord McAlpine has now shown what he is: an entitled thug.

Mo The Rutabaga Isn't Safe In The U.S., Either

I've been pretty tough on the United Kingdom recently, what with them arresting people for burning poppies and trying to make Twitter free of offense and threatening U.S. websites and thus-and-such.

But it's only fair to point out that it's not necessarily safe to carry around my rutabaga named Mo here in the United States, either. Courtesy of commenter Trebuchet and Ed Brayton, I discovered Eugene Volokh's testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which offers numerous examples of embarrassing attempts by American academics to suppress speech. They don't call it blasphemy, but they might as well. Volokh's conclusion is apt:

As I said at the outset, I firmly support the free speech, religious freedom, and property rights of Muslims. My concern is simply that all speakers and religious observers be protected, whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim, or pro-Islam or anti-Islam. Nor does this need to be difficult: The government should tell Muslims (as it tells other groups), “We respect you and your rights, and we will defend you and your rights from violence and government oppression, but if you find certain kinds of speech offensive you should respond with speech of your own; we cannot respond by trying to suppress such speech.”

But the government ought not try to define political and religious speech as “discrimination” or “harassment,” and then suppress it in the name of civil rights. Nor should the government conclude that the speech is stripped of protection because it is supposedly constitutes “hate speech”; the Supreme Court’s precedents solidly reject the view that there is a “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. Nor should it surrender to the threat of violence, a course of action that only encourages more such threats in the future. Instead, the government should protect the civil rights of all, regardless of their religion or ideology.

Some foreign countries, to be sure, do indeed seem to prohibit speech that is perceived as blasphemy or undue criticism of religion — not just Islam but also, for instance, Christianity: Consider, just over the last two years, foreign incidents involving Jesus Christ Superstar, a parody of the venerated Greek Orthodox monk Elder Paisios, mockery of the Bible, and a painting of Jesus with a Mickey Mouse head. But in America, such speech is of course fully protected against government suppression. That must remain so, whatever religion is targeted.

Quite right.

Upon Hearing Of The Arrest Of A Kent Man For Burning A Poppy

In Churchill's realm the weaklings grow
They report mean words, blow by blow

to the police; and in the sky
The cameras, for their safety, spy
Scarce cared of by the men below.

They are the Hurt. Short years ago
They fought, sought truth, and bravely strove,
Spoke out their mind, but now they whine
In Churchill's realm.

Take up their quarrel with the foe:
No hurtful words disturb their soul
The torch; be yours to hold it high:
With feelings must the law comply
Make careful speech, when weaklings grow
In Churchill's realm.

Well, Now I'm DEFINITELY Not Taking Mo the Rutabaga to England!

A couple of weeks ago I introduced you to my rutabaga, Mo.

Mo, my sun and stars.

I expressed my angst at traveling with Mo to England because lunatic student union "officials" at universities there apparently have a grave problem with offensive fruits and vegetables, as demonstrated by the experience of the University of Reading Atheist, Humanist & Secularist Society, which got in trouble for naming a pineapple Mohammed.

Most people — sensible people – recognized that the Reading University Student Union "officials" acted like jackasses. There was hope — a hope born from faith, not experience — that over time cooler heads would prevail.

As if.

Via Ophelia Benson, I see that the Reading University Student Union has sent the Reading Atheist, Humanist & Secularist Society a letter telling them that they shall be subjected to a "disciplinary panel" for wounding the fee-fees of those offended by a pineapple named Mohammed. The letter, copied from the AHS's Facebook page in case it disappears, with hyperlinks added by me, read as follows:

"22nd October 2012

Dear Adam

Outcome of investigation

Further to the recent investigations into the events of Wednesday 3rd October 2012, I am contacting you with our decision.

Our investigation involved meeting with Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society, relevant RUSU members and staff members. I have attached a copy of the transcript of our meeting.

After investigation, we have come to the conclusion that the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society acted in breach of the behavioural policy. It states; "Behaviour should be appropriate, RUSU member’s behaviour should be lawful and not cause offence to the local community or other RUSU members nor bring the reputation of the Union or University into disrepute”. I have attached the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society’s signed copy of the behavioural policy.

Whether it was the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society’s intention to cause offence has not been a consideration in the investigation. However, during our investigation, it became apparent that the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society committee members became aware of offence being caused at some point during the afternoon of the 3rd October, yet took the decision to continue to display the item in question.

Our decision is that the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society should be referred to a disciplinary panel.

You will be contacted by Richard Silcock (Chief Executive) or Ceri Jones (Vice President Democracy & Campaigns) with further details about the process and who will be invited to attend. Their email addresses are r.j.silcock@reading.ac.uk and vp.democracyandcampaigns@rusu.co.uk. Please find attached a copy of the disciplinary procedures.

This is the end of the involvement for myself and Kath Davey, Advice and Representation Manager.

Thank you for your co-operation during the investigation.

Yours sincerely

Kara Swift

Kara Swift
VP Academic Affairs

Here's the pusillanimous and unprincipled attitude of the RUSU and its sad ilk, offered in their own words: modern university students should not do anything to give offense, and if anyone claims offense, they should stop whatever they are doing immediately.

Kara Swift, Kath Davey, Richard Silcock, and Ceri Jones are heir to great ideas forged in mighty minds. They are heirs to Shaw: "all great truths begin as blasphemies." They are heirs to Burke: "The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedience, and by parts." They are heirs to Orwell: "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.” But they reject that inheritance, choosing instead a life of petty bureaucratism and insipid, infantilizing "civility." Offered an opportunity to treat both speakers and listeners as adults, they treat them as children instead — children whose words must be curtailed until they do not offend even the most intolerant and overly sensitive child in the class.

A nation run by the Swifts, Daveys, Silcocks,and Joneses of the world will be weak and dull-witted and crabbed and pointless. Such people exist in every place; it's up to us whether we will put up with them or call them out. I prefer calling them out. So write about things like this. Help shine a light on the Swifts and Daveys and Silcocks and Joneses and their censorious twatwafflery. Write them and express yourself — in a civil and non-harassing manner, please.

Don't let idiocy like this go without comment, until it becomes the norm. Don't let your home become a place where the petty and the wicked use "blasphemy" and "offense" as an excuse to silence dissent. Fight back.

This is my rutabaga. His Name is Mo.

Don't hate him because he's beautiful.

There are many like him, but he is mine. He has never let me down, and in sharp contrast to the lot of you, he never will. I mean, until he rots.

I would like to take Mo on a trip. It's been 21 years since I lived in England; I thought I could take him there. But I have some concerns — and I'm not just talking about the TSA violating him.

In fact, I'm worried that I might be banned from some places in England if I bring Mo.

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United Kingdom Makes Sincere Attempt To Kick Assholes Off Internet

It's really not my intent to make this bash-the-UK week.

In my defense, they seem to be trolling me.

Dateline: Lancashire. A 19-year-old oaf named Michael Woods writes nasty and stupid things on the internet about the abduction and murder of five-year-old April Jones. For this — for the crime of sending a "message or other matter that is grossly offensive by means of a public electronic communications network" — he was arrested "for his own safety" and, after a guilty plea, sentenced to three months in jail by outraged authorites. What did he say?

Matthew Woods, 19, from Chorley, Lancashire, made derogatory posts about April and missing Madeleine McCann after getting the idea from Sickipedia, a website that "trades in sick jokes".

Among his comments was: "I woke up this morning in the back of a transit van with two beautiful little girls, I found April in a hopeless place."

Another read: "Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?"

Others stated: "I love April Jones" and "Could have just started the greatest Facebook argument ever. April Fools, Who Wants Maddie?"

He also wrote comments of a sexually explicit nature about April, who went missing last week from near her home in Machynlleth, mid-Wales.

Thanks to typically poor reporting of legal matters, it's difficult to suss out whether Woods posted these things as Facebook status updates, or whether he posted them to someone else's wall, or as a comment on a story about April Jones. The press coverage is sufficient to show, however, that the United Kingdom has successful trained its citizens to believe that offensive speech is a criminal justice matter:

Chorley magistrates heard members of the public were so upset about his posts they reported them to the police.

Woods is a dick, to be sure, but a mundane one. Much worse trolls — the sort who specifically target victims' families and memorial pages — are common, and places like YouTube are full of folks fond of saying things just as stupid and offensive to get attention.

Is the United Kingdom going to spend its time and money (not to mention its common-law heritage) going after all of them?

The answer appears to be that the UK will continue to arrest and prosecute online asshats who offend a sufficient number of people, or who offend people in connection with a sufficiently popular public figure. Being a racist dick about a popular footballer on Twitter will get you two months in jail. Tash-talk and hyperbole on Twitter about an Olympic contender will get you arrested. Trash-talk both a rival football club and Catholics on Facebook? That's eight months in jail. Racist twitter messages to a different footballer? That's arrest, conviction, and community service. Make a bad joke about blowing up an airport – a joke nobody takes seriously? That's a two year legal ordeal for you, mate.

What's the difference between someone who gets prosecuted, and someone who doesn't? Well, it seems pretty clear that being a dick to a popular athlete is unusually risky. But the difference may only exist in the minds of the U.K.'s criminal justice system, and struggling to figure it out themselves. The potential for preferential treatment and abuse is manifest.

I could look at each case and argue, in detail, why the prosecution of the lout in question was a violation of basic free speech principles. But the most alarming thing about this trend is not any individual case, but the government's goals and the public sentiment supporting them. Free people don't claim a right to be free of offense, and don't expect the criminal justice system to protect them from mean words, as opposed to true threats. Limited and principled governments don't cultivate amongst the populace a desire to see rude speech punished with jail.

So: the point is not that the United Kingdom's Canute-like ambition to sweep asshattery from the internet is ridiculous. The point is that it encourages the populace to be subservient to government, and encourages the government to take advantage of that subservience.

United Kingdom Fecklessly Badgers American Website

I am neither a booster nor a detractor of badgers, the 2000 Rose Bowl notwithstanding. I am, however, a booster of free speech, and a detractor of bullies. Therefore, today I tell the following to the government of the United Kingdom, with all respect that is due: back the feck off or we'll put a boot up your arse.

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We Few, We Fragile Few

John Richards of Boston (the one in Lincolnshire, not the one in Massachusetts) is an atheist. He decided to express his atheism on his own property in a rather mild way: he put up a letter-sized piece of paper in his window with the slogan "religions are fairy stories for adults."

In the modern United Kingdom, this simply would not do.

John Richards was told by officers that he may face arrest if he put up the sign at his Vauxhall Road home, as it could breach the Public Order Act by distressing passers-by.

Now, when I first encountered the story, I thought that Mr. Richards might be exaggerating, or that this might be the act of a single out-of-line officer. In fact, when called on this, the local constabulary merely confirmed it:

In a statement Lincolnshire Police said the 1986 Public Order Act states that a person is guilty of an offence if they display a sign which is threatening or abusive or insulting with the intent to provoke violence or which may cause another person harassment, alarm or distress.

The statement adds: “This is balanced with a right to free speech and the key point is that the offence is committed if it is deemed that a reasonable person would find the content insulting.

“If a complaint is received by the police in relation to a sign displayed in a person’s window, an officer would attend and make a reasoned judgement about whether an offence had been committed under the Act.

“In the majority of cases where it was considered that an offence had been committed, the action taken by the officer would be to issue words of advice and request that the sign be removed.

“Only if this request were refused might an arrest be necessary.

So, it's not as bad as you thought. You don't get arrested immediately for hurting someone's feelings — you only get arrested if you refuse to stop hurting someone's feelings.

Today I'm not going to repeat my usual free speech rant: how suppression of the right to express oneself is vile, how the "balancing" of that right with a supposed right to be free of offense is unprincipled, and how such censorship is dangerous because it arms the state not only with weapons to suppress speech it doesn't like, but with ambiguous standards allowing it selectively to harass enemies.

Instead, I'd like to say a word about character.

What is the character of a person who sees a sign like that in a pensioner's window, and runs to the police to complain?

Could a person with such character stand up, against great odds, in the face of the the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt? Could such a person do his duty, as England expected, at Trafalgar? Could such a person keep calm and carry on? Would such a person fight on beaches, on landing grounds, in fields and streets, in the hills, and never surrender? Is such a person capable of having a finest hour?

I ask because of this: societies that make rules like this one, encouraging its citizens to scamper mewling behind the skirts of the government when faced with the least offense, produce people with the character necessary to take them up on the offer. It is hard to imagine how a nation run by people of that character can endure — or at least, how it can endure as anyplace you'd want to live.

Hat tip to Josephine Jones on this story.

Your Speech Has Been Weighed In The Balance And Found Wanting

A couple of weeks ago I described events at University College of London, where the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society got in trouble with the Student Union because it posted a "Jesus and Mo" comic on its Facebook page.

That incident demonstrated that the "we have a protected right not to be offended" sentiment survives and even thrives.

It ain't over yet. The controversy has spread to the famous London School of Economics, where the local Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society posted the same "Jesus and Mo" comic on its Facebook page in solidarity with their UCL chapter, and received an even stronger response from the local Student's Union: a threat that they could be expelled from the Student Union unless they took it down. The LSE Student Union's statement on the matter is a master class in the mindset of censorious bureaucrats; indulge me and read it in full, with my emphasis:

On Monday 16th January it was brought to our attention via an official complaint by two students that the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society posted cartoons, published by the UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, depicting the Prophet Mohammed and Jesus "sitting in a pub having a pint" on their society Facebook page. Upon hearing this, the sabbaticals officers of the LSESU ensured all evidence was collected and an emergency meeting with a member of the Students' Union staff was called to discuss how to deal with the issue. During this time, we received over 40 separate official complaints from the student body, in addition to further information regarding more posts on the society Facebook page.

It was decided that the President and other committee members of the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society would be called for an informal meeting to explain the situation, the complaints that had been made, and how the action of posting these cartoons was in breach of Students' Union policy on inclusion and the society's constitution. This meeting took place on Friday 20th January at 10.30am. The society agreed to certain actions coming out of the meeting and these were discussed amongst the sabbatical team. In this discussion it was felt that though these actions were positive they would not fully address the concerns of those who had submitted complaints. Therefore the SU will now be telling the society that they cannot continue these activities under the brand of the SU.

The LSE Students’ Union would like to reiterate that we strongly condemn and stand against any form of racism and discrimination on campus. The offensive nature of the content on the Facebook page is not in accordance with our values of tolerance, diversity, and respect for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religious affiliation. There is a special need in a Students' Union to balance freedom of speech and to ensure access to all aspects of the LSESU for all the ethnic and religious minority communities that make up the student body at the LSE.

All the tropes of the censorious bureaucrat are there: leaping into action to bring petty power to bear, inquisitorial demands about the reasons for speech, and a bold pronouncement that free expression must be "balanced" — the balancing to be done by petty bureaucrats — against open-ended, vague, and unprincipled anti-discrimination principles. All of this was a result of a cartoon, on an organization's own Facebook page.

There are two ways to approach this phenomenon in the university. One way is for student organizations to abandon student unions and their petty speech-policing martinets and go their own way at the cost of funding and facilities. Student union funding has often been used as a weapon to suppress disfavored speech and association, and American courts have sometimes supported that use — as when the Supreme Court recently ruled that public schools could use anti-discrimination principles to de-fund religious groups unless they allowed non-believers to take leadership positions. This is a hard path — that student union money and those student union facilities, meager though they may be, can be essential to getting an organization off of the ground.

The other approach is to speak out, forcefully, and call out the bureaucrats who use their petty power to suppress expression they don't like under the thin guise of anti-discrimination principles. The seeds of the student unions' destruction lies in their own hubris, their own words. Ask any student: do you really trust student union leaders to "balance" your right to speak against whatever they feel is important on any given day? Ask any student: what sort of puerile, sanitized campus will you have if the student union defunds any group that ever says anything that anyone could find objectionable? Ask any student: do you really think, for even a moment, that the student union will weigh speech in the balance even-handedly? The London School of Economics Student Union condemns and censors a satirical cartoon on a humanist site — but do you think that those same student union members will lift a censorious finger to condemn or discourage actual threats of violence by people who claim offense at such discourse?

The survival of core cultural values like robust freedom of expression depends upon you — and people like you — calling out and condemning the censors of the world. I'd like to see the specific LSE Student Union leaders who took this action named and shamed worldwide. What can you do to help?

Hat tip to Ophelia Benson.

Edit: Via the comments, two more posts about the incident: the LSE Student Union paper, and Legal Cheek.

This Week In The Right Not To Be Offended — University College London Edition

Listen to me: no sensible and well-ordered society can recognize a right to be free from offense. It's unprincipled and mercurial, a celebration of the rule of subjective reaction over the rule of law. It's an open invitation to censorship-by-heckler's-veto. It chills satire, parody, sharp retorts, hard truths, and uncomfortable revelations. George Bernard Shaw says "all great truths begin as blasphemies" — so where is the room for exploration of truth in a society that lets every entitled group define its own blasphemies and demand that everyone avoid uttering them? Going to courts complaining of fee-fees is no basis for a system of government.

Why the mini-rant? It's because today, courtesy of Ophelia Benson, I learned of a loathsome example of the assertion that we all have the right not to be offended, and an illustration of how it can be used as a weapon of suppression. The Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHS) at University College London has a Facebook page, and on that page they posted a picture as part of an invitation to a party:

And you know what happened next:

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